In the spring of 2013, Henderson Productions was proud to travel with the experts from the restaurant chain, Olive Garden to explore as much about food and Tuscan life as possible.   We’ve created this series of blogs which, like the region, should remain relatively timeless.   Bon Apetito 

Firenze, Italy overlook

Part of our group clowning around overlooking Florence

We quietly rolled out of our Tuscan paradise into the Florence metropolis and took a last good look of the gentle countryside in the light morning drizzle.   Not sad – appreciative.     We had been coddled and protected from any discomfort and decision by Paolo and now move into the hands of the Colavita “guide”, Daiana.    She is excited to give us a great time in the cities.   Paolo graciously transfers all questions her direction as both a sign of respect and, to me, an obvious relieving of the responsibility.    After six weeks away from home, it’s clear he is looking forward to the routine of life at home with his wife and daughter in the Orlando sun.

Amazingly, we arrived in Firenze/Florence with a break in the drizzle and crossed the Arno to Piazza Michelangelo overlooking the entire skyscape of the church spires and the Duomo.    We later learned the inside of the Duomo is the largest hand painted piece known to exist at more than 3500 square meters if laid flat: about an acre.    Think about that – 40 feet across x 40 feet in height x 12 feet thick with no support structures accept adjoining bricks.    Intentionally inspiring.

In any case, in short order we met Daiana and checked into our lovely rooms in Hotel Berchielli near the Ponte Vecchio bridge.    Small, charming, classic with a view of the church in the courtyard.    Initially I think some of us were disappointed to not be on the river but considering the traffic noise we can hear from the main river drag strip, it is probably a good thing!

The Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio bridge from the overlook

The Duomo, Firenze, Italy

The Duomo dominates the Florentine skyline

Paolo walked us up to the tourist market in San Lorenzo for some free time before our lovely lunch at Ristorante-Pizzeria il Grande Nuti with a great appetizer of salami and crostini with mushroom tapenade and another with tomatoes.    We are served family-style with dishes being passed around on the table. After the appetizer comes a lovely big green mixed salad and then three different pizzas to share – margarita/plain cheese and tomato, capriccioso/mushrooms, artichoke, salami, and gorgonzola/blue cheese and prosciutto crudo (thin ham).    Multiple bottles of aqua, a couple Cokes, several bottles of vino.   An hour and a half later, we were walking out the door from another gorgeous meal.

We are introduced to Francesco, a History Professor from Florence who looks like a gracefully aging statue of David.    The ladies in our group think his hair is exquisite all shiny and black and tightly curled but well-trimmed framing his face.    It is not that he’s drop dead gorgeous – it’s the classic shape of his face.    He talks in a sing-gee song-gee a-way-ya that, frankly, after a long lunch lulls me toward a nap.    Extremely informative but not overpowering, his walking tour is a relief providing just enough context and detail to keep us moving along in the periodic drizzle.   We walk down to the Duomo with a stop to admire the intricate, iconic, checkerboard black and white and red marble façade.   I admit to being much more photographically fascinated by people watching and stick close enough to listen but on the edges of our group to rotate on my heels and capture a slice of life in this working tourist attraction.

Smiling Italian men

Francesco and Paulo are old friends

We tour the impressive but simple interior taking several minutes to study the Brunelleschi painted dome and then back out to wander what is left of the old medieval streets down to the City Hall and the Uffizi Gallery.    About a block off the Duomo is a series of shops with large glass windows showing the craftsmen who continually maintain the sculptures and marble of the church.    They take a piece off/out, clean it, recreate it using original techniques and tools and either put the old one back if it is safe or the new one as a replacement and preserve the old.   The shops have big open windows and are very cool to watch.    Look for it if you ever are in the area.

Then into a large open square for the City Hall and a little more Italian political history to explain the purpose of the large selection of statues placed near the entrance.    All of the sculptors were contemporaries of each other – Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, Ghiberti, Leonardo – and many were on a committee to “decorate” the area.    Their discussions were recorded/documented and many of their political opinions are known enough to safely speculate reasons behind the sculptures.    They were all smart enough businessmen to not alienate their patrons but periodically threw a little of their own attitudes into subject or interpretation.   The original statue of David by Michelangelo is believed to represent the small republic of Florence ready to take on the larger French and Spanish empires on a global level.   This coincided with the Medici Banks being the absolute largest financial empire in the world.

The original is under protective cover with this replacement in the original place in the square

OR   It has also been recorded Michelangelo was showing David confident in his kill AFTER slaying Goliath and contemplating becoming a benevolent and worthy king designed as flattery to the Medici patron Cosimo.    Hmmmm.

Just tons and tons of people watching opportunities.  I adore my 30x zoom lens on days like this.    Zoom right in on an animated gypsy woman yelling about something to her friends.    Zoom straight to the classy, wedding model shoot, or a tuxedo-wearing waiter balancing a tray and delivering an aperitif and espresso to a couple tucked out of the drizzle but with a pricey view.    Love, love, love it.

Gypsy attitude in a public square

Through the Uffizi loggia area out to the Arno and across the Ponte Vecchio bridge.    So, the short story of the Medici buildings is the Palazzo Vecchio was gorgeous and the headquarters/family home of the Medici during Cosimo the 1st (14th c).    Then he married a French wife who thought it was old and drafty and not worthy.   She used her dowery to build the Pitti Palace on the opposite side of the Arno.    Alas, the poor Medici didn’t want to walk amongst the little people and built an elevated walkway the entire mile, including across the river, to avoid sights, smells and, more importantly, be safe.    The second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio (then as now being used as the government offices and City Hall) bridges over to the Uffizi with hidden hallways leading to the river to the upper level of the Ponte Vecchio bridge which did not have little windows until the Germans blasted them in for firing ability during WWII.    Once across the river, there is a short series of more hidden hallways to the Pitti luxury.    The entire hidden structure is lined with self-portraits of major artists from the Renaissance to now with modern artists who often donating in an attempt to be included with the masters.    About once a month and given enough guards, the Uffizi opens these hallways for a limited viewing at about 400 Euro each.

A photo shoot amidst the tourists

Fog rolling in from the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno


We cross back to our side of the river and up to a lovely large church called Santa Therese with frescos and detailed decoration showing how patronage inserted political and patron families into biblical scenes as political statements.     A long needed 2-hour rest finished up the afternoon.